Monday, March 18, 2013

What Is Courage?

This Courage I respect a lot. Always
faced his fears.
I heard an interview last week with Ira Shapiro, the author of The Last Great Senate. Check out this bit of the overview from his site:

This is the story of the final years of the last great Senate.  For nearly twenty years, from 1963 through 1980, the Senate occupied a special place in America.  It was a turbulent period in our country’s history, marked by war, assassination, political scandal, violence and civil unrest.  Five consecutive presidents failed to complete two terms in office.  In that troubled time, the Senate provided ballast, gravitas and bipartisan leadership for America.

 So, taking a look at where America is now, 30+ years later, we're still at war, there are political scandals on both sides of the aisle, and we're still experiencing violence and civil unrest. (Yes, the latter is not as extreme as it was during the civil rights movement, but the Occupy folks are as close as it gets these days.) Times really haven't changed all that much when you look at it like that, have they?

We're all tired because elections never seem to end and there is endless (and I mean endless) partisanship and white noise coming out of Washington. Shapiro's theory is that all this started in the 95th Senate when there was massive turnover (as there always is when the cycle comes up) and 34 Senate seats were up for grabs. What I want to look at are the three terms he uses in that last sentence:

  • "ballast"
  • "gravitas"
  • "bipartisan leadership"
What are these things? How do they apply to our everyday lives?  When did our elected representatives (meaning folks in both houses at every level of government) FORGET that they are there to stand for every single person in their district. Regardless of whether they won by 51% or 85%, they still have to represent each voter and even the ones who didn't vote. They are to look out for the least of us so that everyone has a chance.

Courage doesn't mean sticking to your ideology in the face of irrefutable evidence that the ideology is weakened by changing conditions. If there's an open window in your house when it starts raining do you close it when the wind blows water through the screen? I do. A wet carpet is no fun. It's not courageous to say "I don't care about wet carpets", it's dumb. You're doing damage to the house.

(I think that came out better than I anticipated.)

Courage means understanding situations and taking a realistic, pragmatic view on outcomes. Ballast is that thing that gives one steadiness and stability. Gravitas is seriousness or sobriety in the way one talks.

I think you can't be a leader if you don't understand that stability doesn't just apply to you, but to those whom you want to lead. If you're not serious about being that leader, then no one will follow you. But having the courage to attempt to lead your followers to close the window when it's raining may mean stomping through some wet carpet to get there, don't you think?

This is how I try to build my heroes in my stories. To make them courageous enough to change when needed and to be stubborn when appropriate. It's harder than it sounds. Too much of one quality and they seem impossible. Not enough and he's a milquetoast. It's a fine line.

The best way I can do this is to reread and make sure my hero is not a) whining and b) just reacting to things. Those are the danger signs.

But if he's really a leader, the team has to follow him. He has to be able to convince them (convincingly, funnily enough) to go where he's going. He has to change when it's appropriate, and use tactics that mean something to the other characters in a story. But I'm not limiting to only men. Nope. In this case, leadership and courage go both ways. Though sometimes it's harder for a female lead to be an effective leader. At least, that's what's expected. Hopefully someday I'll overturn those expectations in my genre.

A courageous hero, one that a lot of readers can identify with, would step into the mess that is Washington politics and solve the problems. If it was a little pink/purple dog who only wants his people to survive, that might be enough. If it ends up being a real-life hero, so much the better.

Unfortunately, I think that hero only exists in fiction.

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